Supporting International Students

The Presence and the Importance of Foreign Students at the University of Southern California

Dixon C. Johnson, Ph.D.
Director, International Students and Scholars

Since the 1880s USC has been proud to enroll students from around the world. For more than twenty years we have been among the leading universities in the country in terms of number of foreign students and fall 1998 we enrolled 4278 non-immigrant students from 105 countries. These students make-up 15.4 per cent of the student body. Roughly two-thirds of these students are studying for graduate degrees and the most popular majors at both the undergraduate and graduate levels are Electrical Engineering, Computer Science and Business Administration. Countries sending the largest delegations are Taiwan, China, South Korea and India.

We pride ourselves on being an international university and offering a campus environment where students have the opportunity to interact with persons from all over the world. We believe that the understanding that occurs as a result of this interaction in classrooms, laboratories, libraries, residence halls, and throughout the campus, serves to equip students for responsible citizenship both in this country and globally in the 21st century.

We know that following their studies many of these students will return to their homelands. There they will be agents for national development, with a familiarity with American methods, products and services. At a time when economics seems to be an important part of any foreign policy decision, this familiarity and its impact on trade and purchase decisions is of importance.

While a majority of the doctoral students are on USC assistantships, most master's students and all but a handful of the undergraduates, are completely self-, or family-supported. We estimate that these students spent close to $50 million in direct education-related payments to the university and an additional $40 million off-campus during the 1997-98 academic year.

Admissions Criteria and Process for Foreign Students

The central admissions office handles the academic admissions process for most undergraduates, while admissions decisions for graduate students are made in the individual academic departments, following preliminary review by Admissions. Because of their ineligibility for most forms of financial aid, both graduate and undergraduates who are academically admitted are not sent the final admissions decision until they provide proof of adequate finances to cover anticipated costs.

Generally, freshmen applicants must have a minimum "B+" average or its equivalent in their homelands, to be considered for admission. Freshmen applying from either U.S. high schools or U.S. Overseas or International Schools are required to submit SAT scores. Transfer applicants must have a "B" average minimum. Graduate applicants must submit scores on either the GMT or the GRE examinations depending on the area of study.

Based on retention statistics, it is evident that international students' persistence to graduation is somewhat greater than that of domestic students. However there are many factors that can help to explain this phenomenon without reference to citizenship. Most importantly most international students are graduates and a majority of the graduate students are enrolled in two-year Master's degree programs. In contrast the majority of domestic students are undergraduates pursuing four-year Bachelor's degrees.

Financial Issues for International Students

At present more than 65 percent of all USC undergraduates receive some form of financial assistance from the university. However international students, about nine percent of undergraduates, are largely ineligible for this aid. As educational costs continue to increase, this appears to be negatively affecting our undergraduate international enrollment. Over two-thirds of USC non-immigrant students are enrolled in graduate programs and the number of undergraduates has been dropping steadily for the past five years.

Most Ph.D. students, both domestic and foreign, are supported either by research or teaching assistantships. At the master's degree level there is very little institutional support for graduate study expenses, yet a very high percentage of the master's students in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, in particular, are non-immigrants. We believe this reflects these international students' belief that opportunities in these fields will continue to expand.

The university was quick to respond to the financial crisis effecting Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand and its impact on students from these countries. We have now assisted over 100 students in applying for the Special Student Relief (SSR) employment program and more than ten USC students have received support from the ASAAP, KSAAP and ASIA-HELP programs along with matching university grants for their educational expenses. Our priority is to assist currently enrolled students in successfully completing their educational objectives.

English Language Requirements

All students whose first language is other than English, who have not completed at least a year of Freshman English in an American college or university, or who do not submit TOEFL scores of 600 or better (on the TOEFL test), are required to take our International Student English (ISE) examination prior to first time enrollment. Performance on this test determines whether or not, and how much, transitional English study is required prior to, or concurrent with, degree study.

Problems occasionally arise when students arrive at USC believing that their English is sufficient for their academic work and then, from their test performance, learn that they must enroll in further English study. Cooperation between academic departments and the American Language Institute regarding language proficiency issues has resulted in curricular and design changes of the ALI courses to better accommodate academic course sequencing requirements while insuring that students acquire the needed English proficiency.

Relations with the Immigration and Naturalization Service

One of the most frustrating dimensions of our work and that of all people working in international educational exchange is interacting with this complex and largely unresponsive federal agency. As we are repeatedly told, the Agency's primary responsibility is that of a law enforcement agency and secondarily, serving intending immigrants and their families. Services to a non-immigrant constituency, without significant power to influence Congress, receive low priority attention. Specifically student requests for employment authorization, which are handled by the INS California Service Center in Laguna Nigel, are taking so long so as to be meaningless in many cases. For example we have students who submitted applications for three-month summer employment applications in April 1998, who have yet to hear from the Service.

In response to legislation requiring INS to have better information on foreign students studying in this country, INS is currently developing a Coordinated Interagency Program to Regulate International Students (CIPRIS). While much time and effort is being devoted to a pilot program now in place in eight southeastern states, the plan must overcome significant problems before it can be introduced nationally. It is understood that Congress is requiring that the CIPRIS program operate on a self-sustaining basis. To do so, INS has announced that it will have to start charging international students entering the country a $100 fee in advance of the introduction of the new program. Additionally, recent INS processing fee increases, which are justified as a way of raising revenue for additional staffing to help reduce work backlogs, are being met skeptically by those familiar with previous fee increases with the same rationale but little measurable improvements.

Unlike private citizens who can request the assistance of a Congressperson for INS action on a specific matter, educational institutions that need a good working relationship with the agency on a continuing basis, are reluctant to take an openly confrontational stance. After all, the right to issue Certificates of Eligibility (Forms I-20) needed for the visa issuance to foreign students, is granted by the INS.

Many if not most, foreign students hope to acquire employment experience related to their fields of study prior to leaving this country. For this optional practical training can, upon the recommendation of the school, be authorized by the INS. The inordinate delays in approving such employment authorization applications have led to increasing frustration among both the students and the advisers who recommend this employment opportunity.

Health Insurance Issues

While current federal regulations do not mandate that all persons holding student visas be insured for health and accident coverage, most colleges and universities do require it. USC automatically enrolls all non-immigrant students into the university sponsored student health insurance plan. Those who can provide proof of private comparable coverage within the first three weeks of each semester may have this charge reversed.

A very troubling issue is trying to ensure that students with accompanying dependents are aware of the need for spouse and dependent coverage. Since federal regulations make non-immigrants ineligible for all government assistance programs, dependent illness and accidents can cause severe problems and result in termination of study plans.

Interaction Between Domestic and Foreign Students

A study in the Boston area in 1965 showed the larger the university, the less likely that international students will interact in a meaningful way with domestic students. The amount and type of interaction is characterized by superficiality and is largely determined by linguistic capability, self-interest of the parties, strong focus on getting the degree, inordinate careerism, and a strong concern with cost and value. There seems in many ways an inverse ratio between the number of international students on a campus and the likelihood of developing quality relationships and understanding with the majority population. When there are large nationality groups enrolled, the quality of interaction with all different nationalities is also lessened. And when specific nationalities come to predominate in some disciplines, these students can quickly become largely self-sufficient and disinterested in those of other nationality groups. This is especially evident among graduate students from East Asian countries studying the pure and applied sciences.

While this finding was applicable to all large campus communities, the issue of large nationality groups working against meaningful cross-national interaction is further complicated in Los Angeles. Here our large immigrant communities and the support that they offer are very attractive to students of the same nationality. Frequently because of the familiarity provided in these communities, students choose to live there, usually at quite a distance from the campus. Living at such a distance from the campus adversely affects the quality and extent of such students' participation in traditional university community life.

International students who enter as transfer students are most likely to live in ethnic communities and their campus involvement is low- quite similar to that of traditional commuter students. The likelihood that commuter students will form meaningful and lasting relationships with their fellow students then is largely dependent on what occurs in the classroom as interaction out of class is less likely than would be true were the students living on campus or in the surrounding campus community.

As we try to cope with this reality, new and innovative ways of furthering international interaction are continually being sought. Among the most successful especially at the graduate level, seem to be activities and programs where domestic and foreign students share the same goals and cooperation is necessary for success. Therefore team focused project assignments in specific courses, where the professor makes the team membership assignments, are being viewed as one of the best ways to increase cooperative mutually beneficial interaction between students of diverse backgrounds. When all students' grades are dependent on the success of the team, there is greater motivation to cooperate and in the process get to know and understand the character and characteristics of fellow project team members. Experience has shown that as a result of such activity meaningful cross-cultural understanding and friendships often result.

Future Issues

Most people in international educational exchange were initially attracted to it because of a desire to increase international understanding and goodwill between people of diverse nationalities and ethnicities. Unfortunately the increasingly bureaucratic environment in which we work necessitates that the bulk of our time be spent on issues of student status maintenance, and the processing of applications for various INS actions. This circumstance leads to increasing frustration, as we are often confused with immigration authorities in the minds of students. For after all, we are the persons who serve as the designated school officials in dealings with the INS and the office where they have to submit their applications.

While we would like to spend more time on programmatic activities designed to foster and increase international and cross-cultural understanding, it would be disingenuous to suggest that this is the reason all students come to study in the U.S. For many, "education for immigration" is not just their intent, but in some cases the expectation of their families who have scrimped and saved for their children's benefit. Obtaining an American education, getting a job and remaining in this country are the prime objective of many such students. Since, under carefully prescribed conditions, the law makes it possible, this objective is obtainable for many.

International student education for some higher education institutions has been viewed as a way of filling otherwise underutilized facilities with little attention to the unique needs and educational enrichment opportunities for all students provided by these students. I am pleased that with our long tradition of quality international educational exchange programs, that such is not the case at USC.